Scarlet 'A' Is for 'Anti-Semitism'

Ideological Puritans Brand Critics of Israel

Puritan Ways: Branding heretics and witchhunts were hallmarks of 17th century America. Some Zionists are going down a similar path today.
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Puritan Ways: Branding heretics and witchhunts were hallmarks of 17th century America. Some Zionists are going down a similar path today.

By Eva Illouz

Published November 14, 2012.
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Like Hester Prynne, the heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel “The Scarlet Letter” about the rigid and harsh religiosity of 17th century Puritans, many contemporary Jewish intellectuals are marked with the infamous letter ‘A’ (not for adultery as in the novel, but for anti-Semitism).

Peter Beinart, Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, Avi Shlaim, Shlomo Sand and more recently, myself share the dubious privilege of being viewed as anti-Semitic by members of their own ethnic and religious community. What have we done to deserve such ignoble epithet? Nothing more than exercise the right to think and to evaluate critically the accomplishments and failures of the state of Israel.

The people who developed with exceptional brilliance the Talmudic art of debate and argumentation, count today many members and institutions who respond to critique with the rather inarticulate practice of ex-communication (to call a critical Jew anti-Semitic, is nothing but a variation on that old form of zealotry). The accusation of anti-Semitism is especially puzzling when it is aimed against Jews, like me, who have made the deliberate choice of living in Israel.

One simple explanation to these repeated assaults is that anger hides anxiety. According to this view, the French (or American) Jewish community perceives itself in the urgency of its own vulnerability, which in turn commands solidarity against a common enemy – the antisemite. This is particularly true of the French context, in which Muslim anti-Semitism has considerably grown in the last decade. This explanation overlaps with the “dirty laundry” argument: what can be said among members of one’s primary group, cannot be said in the presence of others, and what can be said in Israel cannot be said outside of Israel (my article published in Le Monde is a shortened version of an article published in Haaretz).

Surprisingly perhaps, I accept the validity of these two objections. Indeed, as hermeneutic philosophy has taught us from Heidegger to Gadamer, the interpretation of any claim or text is embedded in a cultural context. Critiques of Jews by Jews have necessarily a different resonance among non-Jews, whose beliefs and attitudes cannot be presumed to be always and only benevolent. Yet, I would argue there are also other reasons, which derive from the paradoxes which plague the position of Jewish communities in their rapport to Israel.


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